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Research News at Vanderbilt

Who or what is the Tea Party movement? Survey offers some answers

by | Jun. 23, 2011, 11:05 AM | Want more research news? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter »

They’ve been called patriots and extremists, constitutional sticklers and libertarians.

Who are the people who make up the Tea Party movement?

According to a new survey undertaken by sociologists from Vanderbilt University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Tea Partiers are an old movement in new (albeit retro) packaging.

“The Tea Party movement is best understood as a new cultural expression of the late-20th century Republican Party,” said Steven J. Tepper, associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt and associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at the university. “Compared to the Republican Party, Tea Party supporters are more likely to support libertarian principles.  But virtually every other characteristic of Tea Party supporters – from demographics to political and social attitudes – matches the profile of Republican supporters.”

I would say that the Tea Party right now is not positioned to change American politics in any drastic way.

Tepper, along with UNC-Chapel Hill colleagues Andrew J. Perrin, Neal Caren and Sally Morris, conducted two telephone surveys of registered voters in North Carolina and Tennessee in the spring and fall of 2010, as well as interviews and observations at a Tea Party rally in Washington, N.C. Results of the poll of about 2,500 people were published in the Spring 2011 issue of Contexts magazine. The margin of error on the statistics used in this release is plus or minus 3.1 percent.

“The coalition of views that make up the Tea Party movement is not necessarily new,” said UNC’s Perrin, one of the study’s principal investigators. “What’s new is the melding of 21st century discontent with the symbolic memory of 18th century America.”

A new study from Vanderbilt University offers insights into who Tea Party members are and their beliefs. (iStockPhoto)

The surveys identified four major traits of people who identify with the Tea Party – authoritarianism, libertarianism, fear of change and anti-immigrant sentiment.


81 percent of Tea Party supporters agreed that it was more important for children to obey their parents than be responsible for their own actions. Only 65 percent of non-Tea Party people agreed with that statement.


24 percent of Tea Party supporters believe that there should be fewer rules about what can be posted on the Internet, compared with 16 percent of non-Tea Party supporters.

Fear of Change

51 percent of Tea Party supporters considered themselves “very concerned about changes taking place in American society these days,” compared with 21 percent of non-Tea Party supporters.

Anti-immigrant Sentiment

18 percent of Tea Party supporters feel “very negatively” toward immigrants, compared with 12 percent of non-Tea Party supporters.

“We set out to determine if general public support for the Tea Party movement represents a new political and cultural phenomenon, or if it’s simply realignment within the Republican Party,” Tepper said.

“It appears to be the latter,” he said.

Tepper argues that the Tea Party movement has been healthy for the political system as a whole, because it stirred up discussion.

“It’s gotten everybody on both sides engaged in debating the role of government,” he said.

Media Inquiries:
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  • Buttercup

    Sorry, but you don’t understand the tea party.  It is not that “we” lost the election.  “We” were upset with Bush’s policies to expand government, most notably TARP.  When TARP happened, a lot of people saw that government was overstepping (there were earlier signs).  It continues to do so.  The same thing would have happened with McCain, but on a much smaller speed and scale.  Obama merely worked at such breakneck speed that it became apparent to a wider group of people that the government was treading where it didn’t belong, creating a bigger backlash.   The difference is not democratic or republican but progressive or Constitutionalist.  There are republicans seen now as progressives, and we are wary of them.  100 years of progressive policies have gotten us to this point.   We understand that we must be a responsible and informed citizenry for our freedoms to be restored and preserved.  Thus, we have turned to the past to educate ourselves on the history of our country and found that we have much in common with the men and women who created this nation.  Who are the people of the tea party? A decent and respectful group of protesters who reluctantly takes off work to send the government a message.   —A thirty-something DMD

  • Abbycatva

    “18 percent of Tea Party supporters feel “very negatively” toward immigrants, compared with 12 percent of non-Tea Party supporters.”

    I wonder how they posed the question.  I don’t know any tea Party members who are anti-immigrant.  They are anti-ILLEGAL immigrant.  There’s a difference.

  • Wnstnhl

    This survey is not accurate and bases its conclusions on groundless findings. Agreeing that its more important for children to obey their parents than be responsible for their own actions should not categorize someone as a fascist or authoritarian.

    • Anonymous  But this explains WHY most of the phony tea partiers are “authoritarian” in their beliefs.  Most of them are authoritarian followers who will simply parrot what their social dominant leaders (Beck, et al) tell them that they are to believe, even when it is completely counter to what they say are their stated core beliefs.  An authoritarian follower cannot see the conflict.  An example would be the Medicare recipients who protested “government run healthcare.”  They didn’t see the contradiction.

  • Adele in Texas

    I hate coming so late to the dance.  I was trying to find something and this popped up.  But, I found the wording of “the four major traits” beyond disingenuous!  1.  Horror!  Parents want their 4 year old to mind them rather than running into the traffic and taking responsibility for being maimed or killed.  2.  Libertarianism is now the champion of the First?  Since when?  Ever disagree with Ron Paul or one of HIS supporters?  YOWZA!3.  Yes, we fear the change that Obama hath wrought.  Irresponsible spending, failure to lead, the gloom of economic catastrophe hanging over our heads, a credit downgrade…  Yes, there’s a whole lotta changin goin on we don’t like.

    4.  And last but not least, we have an anti-immigrant sentiment… not an anti illegal criminals crossing our borders unchallenged by the federal government, just anti-immigrant… uh huh.  What a bunch of frauds.  You’d think they could at LEAST keep their agenda tucked in their pants!

  • It would appear to me that this “research” is based on a pre-existing stereotype looking for allegedly factual support.

    At the risk of sounding “authoritarian,” is this the caliber of professors we spend good money on today in the educational system?